27 November 2014, The Tablet

What is Francis’ problem with grandmothers?

My friend’s grandfather is a bad-tempered old man, suspicious of foreigners, not averse to beating up the neighbours, and mean-spirited when it comes to charitable giving (though he has a fortune stashed away in his bank account). He spends more time with his electronic gadgets and calculating the interest on his investments than he does with his family. He’s a typical grandfather, and he reminds me of Europe.

Sexist, ageist nonsense? Of course. But what about Pope Francis’s suggestion in his speech to the European Parliament that Europe is “elderly and haggard”, so that “we encounter a general impression of weariness and aging, of a Europe which is now a ‘grandmother’, no longer fertile and vibrant”. Sexist, ageist nonsense, or am I just a haggard old woman who has lost her sense of humour?

Let’s go back to the second century, when the author of The Shepherd of Hermas had a vision of the Church as an old woman with a book, representing the wisdom that many cultures associate with grandmothers. Or consider Christ’s grandmother, Saint Anne, who was a powerful matriarchal presence in late medieval devotion. What about the grandmothers of Africa, who provide loving homes to AIDS orphans? In the western democracies, it is often grandmothers who care for children who are abandoned or neglected by those unable to cope with parenthood.

If Europe really were a grandmother, it would reflect many of the fertile qualities of love, relationality and compassion that Pope Francis says are the hallmarks of respect for “transcendent human dignity”. Women’s human dignity has nothing to do with that vacuous idea of “feminine genius” which Francis borrows from Pope John Paul II. It has everything to do with the mutual respect and attentiveness that we owe to one another as adults in equal and reciprocal relationships. Francis has a long way to go before he persuades me that he has a fundamental respect for the human dignity of women.

In his first interview with a woman since becoming Pope, he was adept at dodging questions to do with misogyny and raising the status of women in the Church. When asked by Franca Giansoldati, a journalist with the Rome daily Il Messaggero, if he thought there was an underlying misogyny in the Church, he replied: “The fact is that woman was taken from a rib”. Ms Giansoldati reports that he laughed ‘heartily’ before saying, “I’m joking. That was a joke.” People who are the butt of racist and sexist jokes are often criticised for not having a sense of humour, but these casual and careless “jokes” corrode human dignity. Asked if he thought a woman might head a Vatican department, he went on to say “Priests often end up under the sway of their housekeepers.” That’s another tedious tactic. Implying that women exercise subtle, subversive control over men is a way of deflecting questions about equality and power.

However, Francis’ greatest failure to date as far as women are concerned is the Synod on the Family. This was his golden opportunity to bring about a more inclusive and representative ethos in the Church, yet apart from one religious sister, the only women present were wives and mothers, in the context of married couples who had been carefully selected because they represented a narrow stereotype of the Catholic family. While Pope Francis encouraged the bishops to speak freely and openly, women are still only permitted to speak according to the most rigidly controlled agenda, with no decision-making power or institutional authority.

So what about the next Synod? It is not too late. Why not invite a woman to accompany every bishop, encourage those women to speak with parrhesia – with courage and confidence – about many different struggles and insights, and allow those women full voting rights along with the prelates?

In the meantime, dear Pope Francis, please cut the jokes. They are not funny.

Tina Beattie is Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Roehampton

What do you think?


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User comments (7)

Comment by: Sister K. Lyons Ph.d
Posted: 02/12/2014 18:21:25

Thanks for your reflections Tina I have only just found them? I am of Great,Grandmother age and do not consider myself to lack 'fertility and or vibrancy' except in the more narrow optic for the feminine which is child bearing! Like many women of my age we have contributed to the vision of the common good of a peaceful Europe just as or more fully the those of grandfather age in the Vatican.

Comment by: Cathy Wattebot
Posted: 02/12/2014 17:54:50

Jim - I think you missed the irony in Tina's paragraph about grandfathers! But I think translating these particular words of Pope Francis into English, which is a language almost free of accidental gender assignments, unwittingly exaggerates the impact of the feminine epithets. Europe happens to be a feminine word in Italian, and so will naturally be a grandmother rather than a grandfather. I also suspect "haggard" is a bit strong for translating what in French comes over more as "bent".

These feminine comparisons do not stand out once we read the whole address, which refreshingly encourages the Europe of human rights, diversity and care for the environment, while exhorting us to look after the poor, old and excluded, and to resist the power of multinational interests and their shadowy empires.

Comment by: Jim McCrea
Posted: 01/12/2014 23:28:52

Tina: I agree with a lot of what you said, but your overgeneralization about grandfathers ("He is a typical grandfather") is as bad as for what you are faulting Francis.

Comment by: Pippa Bonner
Posted: 01/12/2014 20:38:22

I agree with Tina Beattie that the Pope's reference to grandmothers is puzzling and perhaps was a joke.
He apparently said this last year:
“It was my grandmother who taught me to pray. She taught me a lot about faith and told me stories about the saints."
Many people find their grandmothers creative, often energetic and able to focus on loving their grandchildren. Perhaps many of us could contribute our experience to the Synod of the Family if we are allowed to take part...? Grandfathers too!

Comment by: GS
Posted: 30/11/2014 18:54:56

Pope Francis has been greatly influenced, indeed transformed, by a painting he saw in Germany - Mary, Untier of Knots by Johann Georg Melchior Schmidtner.
Perhaps he should contemplate another picture, the watercolour by James Tissot -
The Holy Virgin in Old Age (La sainte Vierge âgée)
She may not be a grandmother but obviously remained of value with the passing years.

Comment by: Bob Hayes
Posted: 27/11/2014 19:28:19

Is 'progressive' catholicism's infatuation with Pope Francis waning? Frankly, I am surprised it has lasted this long.

Comment by: Cathy Wattebot
Posted: 27/11/2014 14:20:02

Taken together, I find Pope Francis' responses and comments on women hard to credit from a well educated and experienced man, with his other qualities, who is only 77. Is he trying to wind women up for a reason? Whether this is the case or not, we should I think be inspired to fight even harder and to find ways to join with women in all parts of the world to correct the harmful sexist ethos still present in today's Catholic Church.

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